If my dog bites someone, will my insurance cover injuries?

New Mexico Dog Bite Law and Insurance Coverage for Dog Bite Injuries

Dog bite incidents can cause significant physical and emotional harm, resulting in costly medical bills, lost wages, and potential trauma. A dog bite lawyer can be instrumental in navigating these complex situations, helping victims pursue compensation for their injuries. Understanding when such incidents are covered under homeowners’ or uninsured motorist insurance policies is also crucial. 

A dog bite lawyer specializes in personal injury law, focusing on cases where individuals have been harmed by dog attacks. A dog bite attorney assesses the specifics of the incident to determine the viability of a legal claim, considering the severity of the injury, the circumstances of the incident, and applicable state laws. He or she gathers necessary evidence to support the claim. This might include medical records, witness statements, photographs of injuries, and any available information about the dog’s history.

In New Mexico, dog owners have a duty of care to ensure that their dogs do not cause harm to others. This means taking reasonable steps to control their dogs, particularly in public spaces or when guests are on their property. A breach of duty occurs when a dog owner fails to take reasonable care in controlling their dog. For instance, if a dog owner lets their dog roam freely in a public park without a leash and the dog bites someone, the owner could be seen as breaching their duty of care. To prove negligence in a dog bite case, the victim must show that the dog owner’s breach of duty directly caused their injury. If, for example, a dog owner’s failure to secure their yard allows their dog to escape and bite a passerby, this could establish causation. Lastly, the victim must have suffered actual damages because of the dog’s conduct or bite, such as medical expenses, lost wages due to time off work, pain and suffering, or other losses. New Mexico also applies a doctrine known as comparative negligence. If the victim was partially at fault for the incident (for instance, by provoking the dog), their compensation may be reduced by their percentage of fault.

New Mexico Law Regarding Dog Bites

In New Mexico, a dog owner may be held strictly liable or may have simply been negligent. New Mexico Uniform Jury Instruction 13-506 sets forth the legal standard for strict liability of dog owners for damages caused by their dog. A dog owner is strictly liable “if the owner knew, or should have known, that the dog was vicious or had a tendency or natural inclination to be vicious.” Id. “The owner’s knowledge of vicious or dangerous propensities in his dog may be inferred from circumstances, positive proof of such knowledge not being required.” Perkins v. Drury, 1953-NMSC-029, ¶ 15, 258 P.2d 379. In determining whether a dog owner “should have known” about the tendency of the dog to aggression, a jury considers “evidence of the general reputation of the dog, as well as evidence of any prior acts and conduct of the dog.” Aragon v. Brown, 1979-NMCA-142, ¶ 2, 603 P.2d 1103. Further, in determining the owner’s knowledge, a jury may consider evidence of “previous warnings issued.” Id. In short, strict liability applies even when the owner had only “constructive knowledge of the vicious propensities of the dog.” Torres v. Rosenbaum, 1952-NMSC-089, ¶ 9, 248 P.2d 662. 

Alternatively, a dog owner may be liable for dog bite injuries to others if the owner was negligent. The owner may have been negligent in failing to effectively control their dog to prevent injury. New Mexico courts have long held “that a negligence claim is appropriate where the dog owner lacks knowledge of the dog’s vicious propensities and ineffectively controls the animal in a situation where it would reasonably be expected that injury could occur.” Smith v. Village of Ruidoso, 1999-NMCA-151, ¶ 27, 994 P.2d 50. If the dog was allowed to go off leash at a dog park, escaped from the owner’s home by jumping over a fence or through an open gate, the owner was likely negligent. An owner may have been negligent in failing to adequately train a large dog breed if it was foreseeable that he or she would not be able to walk the dog on-leash without the dog getting away from the owner in the presence of other dogs. 

When are Dog Bites Covered Under Homeowners’ Insurance?

Many homeowners’ insurance policies provide liability coverage that includes harm caused by pets, including dog bites. However, coverage details can vary significantly based on the following factors:

Dog Breed: Some insurance policies may exclude certain breeds deemed “high-risk.”

Location of Incident: The policy usually covers incidents that occur on the insured property, but some policies may extend to incidents that happen off-premises. Often times, the policy is ambiguous, in which case a lawyer will need to persuade the insurance company that the policy applies to negligent care of a dog such as letting the dog loose, even when injuries occur off-premises.

Policy Limits: Homeowners insurance policies typically have limits on the amount of liability coverage provided for dog bite incidents.

Prior Incidents: If a dog has a history of aggressive behavior or previous biting incidents, the insurer might exclude it from coverage. It is important to review the coverage provided by the at-fault party’s homeowners’ insurance before alleging that the dog was vicious or had an aggressive past.

Typically, the best argument for coverage under a dog owners’ homeowners’ insurance involves allegations of negligence, not strict liability. If an owner’s dog had a history of attack or a vicious propensity, it may be argued that the dog had ample training since the prior attack but that the owner was simply negligent in allowing the dog to escape or losing control of the dog on one occasion.

When are Dog Bites Covered Under Uninsured Motorist Insurance?

While less common, there are situations where a dog bite incident could be covered by an uninsured motorist insurance policy. This typically happens when the dog’s owner is uninsured or underinsured, and the attack occurs in or around a motor vehicle. If a dog bites someone through an open window of a motor vehicle while the owner is running an errand, uninsured/underinsured motorist insurance would apply to the incident. Another example would be if a dog was being transported and escaped from a vehicle, injuring someone. Since uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage covers punitive damages for reckless misconduct, a dog bite attorney may argue that the owner was aware of the vicious propensities of the dog, or the dog’s history of attacks, but acted with an utter indifference to the consequences of permitting the dog to run free permitting recovery of punitive damages.

Dog bite cases can be complex, and navigating the intricacies of negligence law can be challenging. Victims of dog bites should consult with an attorney experienced in personal injury law to understand their rights and potential for compensation under New Mexico law. Dog bite lawyers play a critical role in helping victims navigate the complex aftermath of an attack, including gathering evidence, retrieving copies of relevant insurance policies, referring clients to treatment providers, consulting with scar removal services, and negotiating with insurance companies. Understanding dog bite law in conjunction with available insurance coverage for dog bites, whether under homeowners or uninsured motorist policies, is vital to ensuring victims receive the compensation they deserve. It’s always recommended to consult with an experienced lawyer and insurance agent to understand your rights and options fully. The attorneys at Prince, Schmidt, Baca & Woods, LLP have successfully handled hundreds of dog bite cases, both pre-litigation and in lawsuits. 

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